There was a disappointing end to the run of festive Welsh derbies for Cardiff Blues as a late Ospreys penalty ensured they came away from the Liberty Stadium without a win for yet another season.
After last week’s excellent bonus point away victory over Scarlets, head coach John Mulvihill kept changes to a minimum, with Rhys Gill returning from injury, Olly Robinson swapped places with George Earle and former Ospreys Dmitri Arhip and Matthew Morgan were both given opportunities to start against their old club.
The game itself got off to a false start somewhat, as Ospreys and Wales second row Adam Beard went down with a knock injury after a fairly innocuous clash with Josh Navidi, and was stretchered from the field hopefully as a precaution.
After that it was the home side who got themselves together the quickest, kicking a penalty into the corner and shifting through two phases before Scott Williams was able to break an uncharacteristically weak Navidi tackle and cross for the opening try, converted by Sam Davies.
Cardiff Blues hit straight back however, as Matthew Morgan went through a gap and found Blaine Scully on his shoulder. The American was brought down by a brilliant try saver from Alun Wyn Jones, but Gareth Anscombe remained calm and produced an inch perfect chip for Garyn Smith to score in the left corner.
Anscombe missed the conversion but was on the mark defensively shortly after as he read a Scott Williams kick through inside our 22 and cut out the danger well.
The game dropped into a rut as the half approached its midway point, but Ospreys were making in-roads and after some hard carries took advantage of a overlap on the right hand side and some poor covering in the back field, Sam Davies chipping over for George North to score and once again converting.
By this point the home side were threatening to pull away as Dan Evans broke away on the right wing but after the ball found it’s way to Scott Williams, the final pass was knocked on by Aled Davies and the chance went.
In between points scoring opportunities there were some brutal passages of play, both in terms of physicality and distance covered, as each side tried to assert their dominance in the kicking game. As a result each stoppage came with multiple patch-ups, while Blaine Scully and Kris Dacey were both withdrawn from the action.
With half-time approaching rapidly Cardiff Blues were beginning to dominate the possession and territory for the first time, and although the home defence stood strong, eventually a penalty was secured in front of the posts and Anscombe reduced the deficit to 14-8 at the break.
Despite that spell in the first half, it was the Ospreys who saw the best of the opening 10 minutes of the second half, however they could not generate a score as a missed penalty, a knock on and an unfortunate bounce from a cross kick worked against them.
Sam Davies was eventually able to kick a penalty but a few minutes later but Gareth Anscombe hit back with one of his own to keep the six point gap. Unfortunately for Cardiff Blues, the same old pre-Christmas problem reared its head.
Attacking sets came and went with very little, if any, metres gained. Lateral attacks, one-up runners, failure to secure quick ball, lack of positive offloading. With the exception of last week’s game against Scarlets where we purposely played on the back foot, the same problems persist in attack.
Time and time again we saw sets slip away through knock ons or running out of space out wide, until with just under five minutes to go the best chance of the game went begging. Matthew Morgan sliced through the Ospreys but after he was brought down, Anscombe’s pass was adjudged to have edged forward.
The home team went up the other end and, with a penalty advantage, fly-half Davies secured the win and denied us a bonus point with a well executed drop goal.
No complaints on the day as Ospreys took away a well earned victory, with Cardiff Blues coupling the above attacking woes with looking like a team that has played a lot of important, and physical, rugby over the last few weeks.
Unforced errors and ill discpline comes as a result, but John Mulvihill’s men find themselves just five points behind the Ospreys and Connacht with games against both still to come. Pressure on those games now, but importantly we are still in the Conference A play-off race.
Attention now turns to Heineken Champions Cup action once again, with that change in focus coming at a good time for Cardiff Blues to freshen up. Changes may well come for that trip to Glasgow next Sunday.